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How to pay for an unexpected vet bill

Pets make our lives infinitely richer. A trip to the vet, however, can make us significantly poorer. Here's how to deal with an unexpected vet bill.

If you’re a pet owner, you’ve probably experienced the particular tangle of emotions that comes with any unexpected visit to the vet: dread, worry, and a creeping anxiety about how you’re going to pay for it.

You’re not alone.  Recent research indicates that spending on veterinary services is rising at a fast pace and is not expected to stop in the near future.

Part of it is due to an increase in the costs for services, but part of it is simply people choosing to spend more to keep their pets comfortable and healthy.

After all, we love our pets. They make our life better. But we don’t want to wreck our finances taking care of them.

What happens when that bad news comes in, when you learn that keeping you little buddy in fine form requires a major financial outlay? Here’s how to pay for an unexpected vet bill:

Why you should avoid CareCredit (if you can)

Why You Should Avoid CareCredit

You’ve seen the little CareCredit tabletop displays in your vet’s office before—a sort of in-office financing for your pet’s needed care. If you’ve been lucky, you’ve probably never had to consider using it.

CareCredit is just an expensive credit card

CareCredit may seem like in-office financing, but it’s really just a credit card, and it can be used to cover lots of types of elective medical care, not just care for pets. Its standard APR is a staggeringly high 26.99%.

In theory, CareCredit offers first-time users the chance to finance their pet’s procedure at no cost. Promotional offers promise 0% interest if borrowers manage to pay their bill in full in the allotted time (which is usually between six and 18 months). For longer terms and bigger amounts, CareCredit offers lower-than-normal (for CareCredit, that is) interest rates and fixed monthly payments.

That sounds good—in theory. But everything is exceptionally convoluted and complex, mostly likely deliberately so. (CareCredit was forced to refund more than $34 million in 2013, after the CFPB found them guilty of deceptive practices. Doesn’t seem like much has changed!)

Its promotional offer is nothing more than an extended grace period

Here’s the catch on those great 0% offers: If you don’t pay off your balance in time, then that sky high interest rate (26.99%!) applies to your total bill.

In essence, those first six, nine, or 12 months aren’t a promotional period—they’re just a really long grace period, and if you don’t pay in full by the end, all the interest that’s been accruing (but not being added to your account) gets tacked on to whatever remains of your balance.

If you charged a $1,000 procedure to the card and signed up for the 12-month repayment plan, then managed to pay down only $900 of it by the end of those 12 months, then your total bill would go up by more than $250.

The promotional rate also only applies to that first procedure, so if, in the two years you’re paying off Fido’s surgery, he needs a teeth cleaning or some other care, you’ll be paying that higher standard rate on it from the get go.

Even if you do everything right, CareCredit could hurt your credit

And that’s not all! Typically, borrowers are approved for credit lines that barely exceed the cost of the procedure, meaning their credit utilization rate goes way up, and their credit score likely takes a hit.

One user on Credit Karma reported a 57 point drop in her credit score after taking out a “loan” from CareCredit.

A better option: A credit card with a lengthy 0-percent introductory period and, ideally, a hefty signup bonus

A credit card with a long 0 percent introductory period is a better option for unexpected vet bills

At Money Under 30, we believe you shouldn’t take out a credit card unless you plan to use it for a specific purpose: Are you looking to earn rewards, finance a big purchase, or track your spending? Great! Those are all legitimate reasons to get a card.

Upping your purchasing power for no good reason isn’t. It’s an invitation to overspend and rack up debt.

Similarly, taking out an expensive premium card that requires significant spending to get signup bonuses can also lead to spending money just to spend money, which will significantly lessen the worth of the bonus itself.

An unexpected vet bill (and by that we can mean an emergency procedure or something less urgent but still expensive) is a good reason to get a card, and may make one of those hefty sign-bonuses more feasible:.

For example: I learned my cat needs to get a few teeth removed, so I applied for the Chase Freedom Flex℠, which offers $200 bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.

Ideally, you’ll want to find a card that has both an intro APR offer and a notable cash sign-up bonus.

Luna’s surgery is likely to cost at least $500, and that bonus provides a discount. The procedure itself will then net me rewards as well, which isn’t much to write home about, but isn’t nothing, either.

I’ll pay off the rest of her surgery over time (or take money from my emergency fund), as the card also comes with 0% Intro APR on Purchases for 15 months and 0% Intro APR on Balance Transfers for 15 months from account opening, then an APR of 20.49% - 29.24% Variable.

Card info has been independently collected by MoneyUnder30 to help consumers better compare cards. The financial institution did not provide or approve card details.

A few things to keep in mind when using this approach:

  • Be sure to pay your bills on time—if you’re late with a payment, the 0% APR may be revoked.
  • Work out a repayment plan—how much will you pay every month?—to keep from falling into the minimum payment trap. Try to pay enough that the bill will be paid off during the intro period.
  • Don’t put any other purchases on this card until the vet bill is paid off.

» MORE: Best 0% APR credit cards

But what if you don’t have time to apply for a credit card? What if Fluffy needs surgery RIGHT NOW and the vet wants payment ASAP?

Deal With An Unexpected Vet Bill

In this case, you may have to use whatever’s at your disposal: That may mean an existing credit card without a promotional period, or resorting to CareCredit if that’s all that’s available to you.

However, once you’ve made that required payment (some vets require 50% upfront), you should take steps to move that debt from a high-interest credit card (whether from CareCredit or not) onto something more manageable, like a balance transfer credit card or a personal loan.

Balance transfer

A lot of the 0% APR offers apply only to purchases, not to balance transfers. Before you transfer a balance, make sure the card you’re transferring to extends that sweet promo offer to balance transfers as well.

Otherwise, you’re just shifting debt around without lowering your interest rate all that much—and probably incurring a balance transfer fee. On a balance of $1,000, a balance transfer fee of 3% will add another $30 onto your total.

Ideally, you want to find a card with a lengthy intro period of 0% APR for balance transfers and no balance transfer fee.

Fortunately, such a card exists! It’s the Citi® Diamond Preferred® Card. It doesn’t offer any ongoing rewards (literally none!) but they are a great way to pay off a big purchase over time, giving you from date of first transfer. The ongoing rate of applies after. And bonus – there’s no annual fee!

In some cases, you’ll actually save more money by paying a balance transfer fee and having a few extra months at 0% . It all depends on how quickly you can pay down your balance. Our balance transfer calculator can show you which card will save you the most.

A few things to keep in mind when using this approach:

  • Have a plan to pay it off (or as close as you can get to it) by the end of the promo period
  • Set up automatic payments
  • Don’t put any other purchases on the card until the vet bill’s paid off (and maybe not even then)
Card info has been independently collected by MoneyUnder30 to help consumers better compare cards. The financial institution did not provide or approve card details.

Personal loan

Like credit cards, personal loans are unsecured debt, meaning there’s nothing the bank can seize—like a house or a car—to get back its money if you can’t pay.

Unlike credit cards, however, personal loans are for a fixed amount, and you’re expected to pay back the money over a fixed term by paying fixed monthly payments. They’re usually relatively quick to get, with many banks approving your application within hours or days.

Personal loans often have lower interest rates than credit cards (especially for those with excellent credit), though they obviously charge more than 0%. Those rates, however, tend to be fixed.

Personal loans are for larger amounts, and are better suited to people who like structure, and who might be tempted to pay the minimum balance on a credit card. You can view our list of recommended personal loan lenders here.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

Now that we’ve covered all the ways to deal with an unexpected vet bill, let’s talk about how you can make the prospect of such a bill less of a financial worry.

A special pet emergency fund

Pet Emergency Fund

Yes, I know, you already have an emergency fund. But! That emergency fund is set aside for, among other things, the prospect of an unexpected job loss, and you determined how much you’d need assuming you’d have average expenses.

Obviously, average expenses don’t take into account a $2,000 surgery to save your dog’s life.

You might scoff and say, “How likely is it that I’ll lose my job and my dog will need serious medical care at the same time?” I mean, it may not be likely, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. And the whole point of an emergency fund is to take away worry and stress about terrible possibilities.

Unless you’ve had a remarkably blessed life, you’re probably well aware of the cruel tricks the universe can play on you. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

How much extra do you need?

Desirae over at Half-Banked thinks you should calculate your worst-case scenario, and start saving towards that.

I’d say aiming for $2,000 is a good place to start, especially for those with cats and dogs. (Rabbits and birds tend to cost less.)

If you’re intimidated by such a large number, then it’s okay to start smaller: Aim to save up the cost of their yearly exams, and then set up a small monthly contribution. Funnel any extra cash that way.

Even if your pet requires no major surgeries, eventually they will probably require end-of-life care. It’d be a shame if

Pet insurance

Pet insurance can protect you against big expenses.

Let’s say that saving up several thousand dollars for little Polly’s possible periodontal disease doesn’t sound like something you want to do.

There’s another option for protecting yourself against unexpected expenses: Pet insurance.

By paying a relatively small monthly premium (between $16 and 30 a month, for a middle-aged cat), you can guard against major expenses incurred from either accidents or illness. For more money, you can protect yourself from costs associated with hereditary or congenital conditions.

Is it worth it? It depends.

For major – but relatively unlikely – expenses? Definitely. For more likely, less catastrophic stuff? Not so much. When you take into account premiums, your deductible, and your co-insurance, pet insurance might not save you any money over paying out of pocket for a bill under $1,000.  With a deductible of $250, then 30% co-insurance ($300), plus your yearly premiums ($360), your total cost is…$910.

That said, insurance is designed to protect you from *major* expenses, not completely insulate your from any pet-related costs. The super-safe approach would be pet insurance supplemented by a considerable pet emergency fund to cover out-of-pocket costs and more routine care.

Pet insurance providers like Lemonade offer reasonably priced, customizable insurance options that can help you to play it safe when it comes to your furry friend’s health.

Lemonade can help cover major expenses during medical emergencies or illnesses. These expenses include diagnostic tests, emergency surgeries, x-rays, and medications your pet may need as the result of a covered accident or illness. Plus, if you opt for a Preventative Care package, Lemonade can cover regular wellness exams and vaccines your pet needs throughout the year. 

Lemonade’s policies start as low as just $10/month, and you can apply in minutes. You can get annual coverage amounts between $5,000-$100,000, so there’s sure to be a plan that’s right for any cat or dog owner. 

» Read more in our full Lemonade Insurance review.


Pets may be their owners’ best friends, but that friendship can get expensive. But keeping your little buddy healthy shouldn’t stress you out too much. By making prudent decisions, both before and after your pet needs care, you can be assured that you’ll never have to pick between saving your pet’s life and staying financially afloat.


About the author


Lauren Barret

Lauren has operated as a staff writer and associate editor for Money Under 30, covering topics from the cost of graduate school to saving for retirement. She has a MFA in creative writing from The Ohio State University.

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